Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Not Fat Enough

The clocks went back in the wee small hours of Sunday morning, so I got an extra hour in bed, sheer luxury.  Even with the clocks having one back, it was still dark when I arrived at Toddington to clean Foremarke Hall and it was raining intermittently.  The forecast for the later on in the day was of the kind that urges responsible citizens not to make non-essential journeys.  Fortunately traveling to Toddington for a cleaning turn is regarded as an essential journey, so I could disregard the weather warnings with a clear conscience:
7903 and 2807 slumber on in the dark
I'd make the mistake of bringing along a clean pair of overalls, my others were so befouled with oil, grease and grime that they formed a pretty effective barrier to rainfall.  The newly washed ones that I had bought with me this week would simply soak up the rain and leave me cold and bedraggled.  You can imagine my delight, when I inspected Foremarke Hall by torchlight and found that she was gleaming from top to bottom.  Subsequent inquiries have revealed that on Saturday, Dan, Tonia, Nick, Andy B, Phil, Steve J, Laurence and possibly others had spent the day giving her a thorough clean.  I felt a bit of a fraud as I struggled to find something to do. I even had to resort to making the crew a pot of tea.  My grateful thanks to all concerned.  

It wasn't just Foremarke Hall that was running on Sunday, 2807 was down to haul the dining train.  As mentioned earlier, the weather forecast promised all sorts of unpleasantness and the rather exposed footplate of 2807 is not the best of places to be in a downpour.  Jonathan greeted me with an offer of swapping engines when he arrived.  I declined.  Not only was Foremarke Hall's footplate much better sheltered than 2807, my loco was already clean, and this was likely to be my last opportunity to ride on Foremarke Hall before her boiler ticket runs out.  She is only booked down for turns for the rest of this week, and after that, will probably only run if one of the other locos fails.  There is rumour and counter-rumour as to whether or not she will run on the first day of the Christmas Cracker gala, which is the final date of her boiler ticket.   

Jonathan may have been keen to swap, but the Andy, the fireman for 2807 when asked about his views on the deluge to come and the lack of shelter in the cab seemed quite undaunted:
Andy ready to face all that the British weather could throw at him
Later on, from the relatively dry and comfortable cab of Foremarke Hall, we distinctly heard the words "You bastards" as we glided serenely past 2807 and her rather damp looking crew at Winchcombe.  Reporting that the voice sounded remarkably like that of the head of training would be something of a career limiting move, so I'll refrain from mentioning it.

I'm leaping ahead of myself though, Paul and Jonathan got into a lengthy debate about the relative virtues of LMS, Southern & GWR locos.  Foremarke Hall listened on in a dignified silence:
Paul and Jonathan
I chose to take advantage of the wet conditions and take a few vaguely arty reflection shots of Foremarke Hall using various convenient puddles of water:
Foremarke Hall's nameplate
Front end
 Steve and Paul were the rostered driver and fireman for the day:
Steve getting a caffeine fix before we set off
Paul very kindly threw the shovel in my direction for the first round trip, which as this was a pink timetable day included the run up to Laverton loop.  It wasn't my best performance, but we got there and back without the need for either a blow-up or blowing off.  As usual, no photos taken by me when I was firing.  Paul however took plenty of photos which will doubtless end up plastered all over a certain well known social media website in the near future
Second round trip, setting off from Toddington
Entering Greet tunnel
I've noticed that some crew members skulk in the darkest recesses of the cab whilst in Greet tunnel these days to avoid joining the 'crew by firelight' gallery.  Not so with Paul and Steve, I quite like how these turned out:
As forecast, the weather varied between bright sun and driving rain.  None of our steam locos come equipped with windscreen wipers, which at times rather restricted forward vision:
Spot the signal
Determining the state of signals often required sticking your head out the side of the cab and into the rain.  Running tender first presented its own problems in that department too.  The storm sheet that we had hurriedly erected before setting off in the morning was a snug fit over the top of the tender which didn't so much reduce vision as block it completely.  Paul had the solution, jam a broom between the door of the tender and the storm sheet to provide a window to see through.  As the wind was coming from the other direction and was probably traveling faster than we were, no appreciable rain came in though the gap:
A broom with a view
Needless to say when the footplate needed sweeping to clear up the coal dust, we lost our view ahead, so it had to be done quite rapidly.

Passing 2807 and her bedraggled crew at Cheltenham
I seem to be acquiring a notoriety that spreads far beyond the borders of the steam loco dept.  As we were leaving Cheltenham, the signalman spotted that I had my camera in my hand and ducked out of sight saying "No fear, I know where that will end up".
The lair of the camera shy signalman
The day before, had been the day of the Halloween special services, 'steam & scream', people dressed up as witches etc.  Just in case all that wasn't quite scary enough, they also had a Dalek at Winchcombe station:
Photo courtesy of Neil Carr
Being of an age where I can just about remember watching Dr Who from behind the sofa, I was hoping that the Dalek might still be around on Sunday, but no such luck.  I was curious as to what might have made it choose to visit Winchcombe station in the first place, and can only surmise that it was around to visit some of its distant relatives that I noticed sheltering from the rain under the footbridge:
Dalek's relatives?
It's probably just as well that it wasn't there any more as I had neglected to bring my sonic screwdriver with me, and I didn't fancy getting exterminated.

Occasionally the fireman is permitted by the drivers to drive the loco on the run round of the stock.  Paul had a go at Laverton:
Coming back into Laverton loop
Paul is a passed driver on the Swindon & Cricklade Railway, so is no stranger to the other side of the footplate.  Just before this run round, we had all been discussing one of the volunteer announcement emails asking for helpers as Santa during the upcoming Santa Expresses season in the run up to Christmas.  I can't remember the exact flow of the conversation now, but the memorable line from Steve was "You're not fat enough to be a Santa Ray".  For me, compliments are few and far between (probably with good reason), so I made a note of it.  Paul meanwhile decided to try to negate Steve's comment by buffering up as close to the stock as possible.  It's a bit of a tight fit between carriage and loco at the best of times, I had to breathe in before going under  to hook on this time!
Fat man's agony
Running up to Laverton and back gave a few unusual photo opportunities for me:
Approaching Stanway viaduct
Entering Toddington from the north
You'll notice in the photo above that there is a fair throng of people on the platform. Amongst those traveling on the train would be a number of people from Foremarke Hall's owning group.  I was expecting that a couple of the owners would be wanting to travel on the footplate for this last round trip.  This would be a last chance for many of them to do that before she is out of traffic and facing a major overhaul. I was a bit surprised to find that none of them did until we got down to Cheltenham.  It seems that the cream tea that was waiting for them in the carriages was more important. If I'd been them, I'd have grabbed my scones and tea and taken them onto the footplate.
Once more off down the line...
... and through Greet tunnel
Cream teas consumed, they finally took their place on the footplate when we arrived at Cheltenham:
Two members of the Foremarke Hall group
Jim Clark of the Foremarke Hall Group
They can of course be extraordinarily proud of their collective achievement.  Returning Foremarke Hall from Barry scrapyard condition to a working loco is no small task and not only that, they did it so well that she has been an extremely reliable performer over the 10 years since she first entered traffic in her preservation career. 

Two more people on the footplate means that there is no room left for the cleaner, so for the first time in ages I got to travel on the cushions. 
If you're going to be in one of the coaches, you might a well do it in style
The guard joined me for a while in the compartment for a chat.  Mercifully he didn't ask me for my ticket as of course I didn't have one, and my work permit was back on the footplate in my bag.  It's always interesting to talk to people in other departments within the railway.  Nick as it turned out comes to the railway from north Essex for a weekend once every six weeks.  It's quite a long way to go, and there must be many other heritage railways that would be far closer for him, but he likes the friendly nature of the other volunteers here.  Quite a nice testimony I thought.

I rejoined Paul and Steve on the footplate at Laverton.  Once we'd got back to Toddington and unhooked from the stock, Steve said "well let's see if Ray know's how to do it".  Apparently that was my cue to drive Foremarke Hall from platform one onto the ash pit for disposal. Part of fireman training these days includes knowing how to stop the train in a station, just in case the driver has become incapacitated whilst the train is running. It hasn't formed part of my formal fireman training yet, but no doubt it will do sooner or later. It's taken for granted that you won't want to try to revive the driver, mouth to mouth resuscitation would be an extremely unappealing prospect, so the next best thing is knowing how to stop the train safely. I surprised myself by mostly getting it right (opening the large ejector while the brake air valve was still open wasn't a good start).  I even managed to stop her in the right places, but that's probably not too difficult when you're light engine and running at slow speed.  The important thing is that I stopped her on the pit with room to get under and empty the ash pan rather than ploughing on into the machine shop.   All in all a cracking way to remember what will almost certainly be my last turn on Foremarke Hall in her current boiler ticket.  Not many people get to fire, drive and travel first class behind an engine all on the same day.  

It will take some while before she returns to traffic with another 10 years on her boiler.  If you'd like to help the Foremarke Hall owning group, they will always be grateful for financial donations to help bring that day a bit closer.  I have no doubt that they'd be keen for more volunteers to help with the work as well.
2807 and Foremarke Hall on shed at the end of the day

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pit Perils

Next Sunday, the clocks go back an hour, so cleaning locos won't be performed almost entirely in the dark. Not so last Sunday of course, It was pitch black when I turned up to clean Foremarke Hall and it stayed that way for quite some time.  Once again it was one of those days when dawn didn't really happen, it just slowly got less and less grey.  It rained a bit too. 
Foremarke Hall and 2807
Foremarke Hall had been out on a dining train the night before.  The crew of the evening dining train don't get to escape until the wee small hours, so they are excused ash pan cleaning duties which of course means that the morning crew get to do it instead. 
Damping down the ash pan before emptying it
 The bonus for Chris who was on a fireman training turn is that when he arrived, he found that Foremarke Hall still had 80 PSI on the pressure gauge, so there was no mad rush to get the fire lit.  Getting Foremarke Hall ready to go passed uneventfully and soon enough she was off.
Foremarke Hall is in there somewhere
Andy finally shut the cylinder drain cocks in time for Chris to collect the token from Peter in the Signal Box.
Chris receives the token from Peter
Once Foremarke Hall had disappeared off down the line, it was time to find something useful to do until she arrived back for disposal.  I made the mistake of saying 'yes' when Ian asked me if I had gloves, ear defenders and safety glasses with me.  The new DMU vehicle had a connecting door frame that was more rust than steel and needed some therapy with a needle gun:
DMU door frame
 The far end of the frame in the above photo is the lower part when installed and consequently where any water will settle.  Needless to say that is the end that had rusted the most and therefore needed the most work.  The forecast for the rest of the day was for sunshine and heavy showers.  I took the view that I'd be better off shifting the frame into the shed to try and remove the rust with a needle gun, otherwise it would rust up again as quickly as I could get it off. Once you've got ear defenders on, you disappear off into your own little world of near silence. I found myself pausing only to demist my safety glasses occasionally or when people passed by suggesting that they were off to make a brew.

At lunch time I took a quick tour around the shed to try and spot what might have happened to our ongoing restoration projects:
44027 now has coupling rods

 44027 may have had the coupling rods in place for some time now and I just hadn't noticed, but I don't recollect having seen them before.  35006 on the other hand, had black driving wheels until recently.  I thought that they looked pretty smart in the first place, but one of them has been done in primer again
 More work has taken place in the cab too, the vacuum gauge wasn't there last time I looked:
Vacuum gauge
 I'm pretty sure that some of the copper pipe work is new as well.
35006 cab
Meanwhile, Ian's Peckett is making progress.  I remember grinding the paint off of her coupling rods some while ago, Ian is now bringing them up to a high shine.
Ian working his Peckett's coupling rods
Meanwhile the other Ian and Dan go about re-installing the reverser  counter weight on the Peckett.
Speaking of Dan, he let me know that on Saturday we'd had a visitor from Australia on the railway.  He had recognised one or two people who sometimes feature in this blog and wanted to know if 'blogman' was about. Well sadly I wasn't, I do occasionally get time off for good behaviour you know. Not very often, as I'm rarely good.  Ok, I'm never good, it's just that sometimes I don't get caught.  Anyway, I'm sorry to have missed you, I hope you enjoyed your day at the GWSR. 
By this time, the day was over for Foremarke Hall, and she returned to the ash pit for disposal
Chris empties the smoke box, Ben fills the tender with coal
Ben demonstrates how he managed to remain dry on Foremarke Hall despite the heavy showers
Pits of course are fairly dangerous items.  It would be easy for the unwary to fall into one for instance, never mind the many hazards associated with working underneath a loco.  Even when the loco has moved off, being in the pit can be perilous as Ian discovered. Whilst I had been in the pit extracting the ash from Foremarke Hall's ash pan, I noticed that the water levels were rising. The pump had stopped working even though it was switched on (I did think to look across to the switch just in case somebody was winding me up).  After Foremarke Hall had safely moved off, Ian decided to have a go at fixing the pump.  He made the mistake of picking it up by the out flow pipe which promptly separated itself from the body of the pump.  The pump now freed of what ever had been blocking it suddenly sprang into life spraying water into the air with some force all over the hapless Ian.  Having managed to keep himself dry throughout the heavy downpours of the day, he was now soaked through.
Ian having just been soaked by the pump which is still churning water up into the air
Ian was last seen clinging grimly to the heater in the mess coach trying to dry his clothes out before heading home.
Ian raising steam

Monday, 14 October 2013


An excellent working knowledge of steam locomotive operation and maintenance coupled with a literary flair and witty yet amusing written style, capable of captivating an audience and holding them spell bound on the edge of their seats are all essential skills for the modern blogger in the GWSR's steam locomotive dept. Why on earth then did the GWSR steam loco dept's management team choose to ask me to maintain their blog, because I can do none of these things! At school I considered it an achievement if I managed to hold a pen the right way round and my hand writing bore more than a passing resemblance to a spider coming home on a Saturday night after falling into an ink well. I struggle to even turn out a palatable cup of tea using a domestic kettle, never mind managing the boiler on a full size steam locomotive.  I can only conclude that they thought I would cause less damage doing this than anything else. If you have a square peg, find a square hole to put it in was probably what they were thinking.  Regardless, the first issue of this blog burst out into an unsuspecting blogosphere exactly one year ago today. It was a rather tentative start and I have since settled into a style (for want of a better word) that is rather more like the real me.  That's definitely not a good thing, but it's what you're stuck with I'm afraid.

This seems like an opportunity to reflect on what I've learnt from this experience.  Firstly, I had expected the audience to be fairly small and to consist largely of members of the GWSR in general and the steam loco dept in particular. Far more people check the blog each day than could possibly be accounted for by the members of the steam loco dept, in fact a fair proportion of the readers are not even in the UK (approximately 15% of you are reading this abroad).  Although the obvious English speaking countries (USA, Canada & Australia) feature in the top 10, you may be surprised to learn that Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Latvia & China are in there too.  Less frequent visitors, but no less welcome arrive from all corners of the globe.  I noticed a few hits from Moldova during the week.  I have no idea where Moldova is, in fact if you'd asked me before hand, I'd have guessed that it was a fictitious country used as the lair of a James Bond villain. I presume that these are mostly visits by ex-pats, but it would be nice to think that our railway has a following amongst the native inhabitants of some of these far flung places. My apologies to the good people of Moldova for my ignorance, apparently it is a country of just under 4 million inhabitants sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. It's also interesting to note that many of the people who visit this blog have come from one of the other GWSR blogs, so the interest in the railway is more general than just that of the steam loco dept.  35006 and 4270 are popular strings entered into search engines that lead people here, so it's nice to know that our active restoration projects are creating such an interest. Now that the 2013 operating season is drawing to a close, I will try to post more updates on those. I have quite a collection of photos of the restoration of 4270 courtesy of Ian Carpenter that I have been saving for a rainy day.  Several of the members of the steam loco dept have been recognised by complete strangers whilst on the railway which I find quite gratifying. We market ourselves as being the 'friendly attraction in the Cotswolds' and if this blog helps our visitors feel they have a more personal connection with the crews of our trains and encourages them to strike up conversations then that has to be a good thing. Don't be afraid to come up and say hello to the crew of your train next time you visit the GWSR, very few of us bite.  

I've never been entirely convinced that maintaining this blog and learning to become a fireman aren't mutually incompatible and I find myself switching out of 'blog mode' when I have a shovel in my hand and switching back into 'blog mode' at other times. It probably makes for less interesting reading and certainly makes for fewer photos, but I like to think that I'm managing to keep all the plates spinning.  If you hear a tinkling sound in the distance, you'll know that I've dropped one.

Saturday was another official firing lesson day for me, so once again checking my camera for photos later revealed that there were embarrassingly few.  The day started well, not only was Foremarke Hall my allotted loco, but I had not one but three cleaners on hand.  The fireman is supposed to manage the cleaners, but Jonathan, Paul and Laurence all know the ropes so I left them to it and seeing as it was a cold grey and slightly drizzly morning, once I had got the fire lit I decided to take full advantage of the situation and warmed myself in front of the fire whilst giving the copper pipes on the back head some therapy with the Brasso.   Not only did they make an excellent job of cleaning Foremarke Hall, but they even went off and fetched breakfast:
Jonathan and Paul having just fetched breakfast
  Though it has to be said that Jonathan's choice of breakfast wasn't for the faint hearted:
The three B's, Black Pudding, Beans and Bacon
 Mind you, it didn't stop him from getting up into the tender and shoveling coal forward straight after finishing that lot:
He'd have used the rake in the bottom left hand corner of the photo, but the handle is broken
Meanwhile Paul got on with the task of oiling up Foremarke Hall.  After his recent difficulties with a certain 'really useful engine', he decided to use a step ladder rather than risk venturing onto the running plate.
Paul at work
 We're in the low season now, and the blue timetable has come into effect on most weekends.  The downside is that there is only one steam locomotive running, but the major bonus point is that the train does the full length of the line, including the Northwards extension out to Laverton and back.  I'm struggling to remember the last time that I fired out to Laverton, so I was quite looking forward to it.  The blue timetable is full on, without any breaks at any of the stations, so in order to comply with the 'Working Time Regulations', we work a split shift with a relief crew taking over for one of the round trips.  Some weeks ago, Cliff had volunteered to be the relief fireman and had asked me which trip I'd like him to cover.  It was here that I had made the most monumental blunder.  Without stopping to think about it, I suggested he take the middle one.  The blunder was that if I'd checked the timetable I'd have noticed that the middle trip was down as a fish and chip special.  I was going to miss lunch.
Paul and Cliff
The run down to Cheltenham and back was uneventful, though the leaky water tower pipe at Cheltenham is still in need of some TLC:
Ade makes the most of the free hand washing facilities
Last year at about this time, there was a 'race the train' event from Cheltenham to Winchcombe and back, with runners heading out over the Cotswold hills and the train taking the usual though rather longer route around them. Some more adventurous members of the steam loco dept had suggested putting out tracks along route that the runners take to make it a bit fairer, though I'm not sure how our locos would have coped with going up one in three gradients or how the brakes would have coped coming back down.  Anyway a similar event had been organised for this year and then cancelled at short notice.  The message that it had been cancelled hadn't quite got out to all the participants and one poor soul turned up expecting to run. She gamely decided to crack on and go ahead on her own anyway.
The loneliness of the long distance runner
She waited until we were due off and then set off.  I hope she made it ok, with no marshalls and water stops out along the route, it would be easy to get lost or dehydrate.

Once we'd done the round trip, and got back to Toddington, it was time for our relief crew to take over.  Cliff had delegated the task of wielding the shovel to Jonathan:
Jonathan practices leaning on his shovel
I handed Foremerke Hall over to him with a good fire/pressure/water levels and I'm pleased to say that is exactly how he returned it to me later on when he got back.
Foremarke Hall... absconding with my fish and chips
If you look carefully, you'll notice that Paul is still on the footplate driving Foremarke Hall.  He had decided that the relief driver would take over for the third trip.  I already knew that the relief driver would be Chris and hitherto I had supposed that he would be covering the middle turn, so I wouldn't have to fire for for him.  Not so.  Although Chris is a very warm, friendly and even amusing character, he is also one of our inspectors and therefore not exactly the person a novice would want to have to fire for. The expression 'no pressure there then' could easily have taken on an extra and very much unwanted meaning if I wasn't careful.  Chris however is used to having to cope with rookie crew members and very quickly set me at ease, so my initial apprehension soon proved to be unfounded.  As with all good things, the day seemed to come an end far too quickly and it seemed like no time at all had elapsed before we were back at Toddington disposing Foremarke Hall:
Chris and Ade strike nonchalant poses by the water column, Jonathan on the tender
 One of the many possible causes of poor steaming is a poor seal on the smoke box door, so when I inspect the smoke box each morning before a trip, I make sure that it is done up good and tight. I had obviously done it up a bit tighter than Jonathan would have liked as he struggled to get it opened again:
Let the train cause the strain
  Whilst Chris was refilling the tender with coal, Jonathan organised an impromptu  photoshoot.  He did explain why he wanted to do this, but I can't remember why and even at the time it made no sense. It involved a small trolley with George & Dan on it, Tina pushing and all apparently being chased by Foremarke Hall.  Not being one to turn down a photo opportunity I grabbed a shot too.
It still makes no sense to me, but the expressions are amusing
 And finally, I was informed later by Ian that he had decided which was the best GWSR blog of the many that we now have.  My chest swelled with pride at this unexpected accolade, but before I could start one of those tearful Oscar style acceptance speeches in which I thank everybody I could think of, he went on to say that "the best read of the lot is the GWR Lineside Drainage Management blog".  The lineside drainage team are of course yet another example of the GWSR's unsung heroes.  They may be largely invisible to most of our visitors, but without their dedication and hard work, we'd have more of the catastrophic land slips like the ones that we suffered at Gotherington and Chicken Curve.  They could probably come up with a better Oscar acceptance speech than I could too.